Given players have not yet been offered deals for next season, and have seen contract-talk deadlines continually put back, the squad demanded to meet Carnegie chairman David Dockray last Wednesday to gain some clarity.
They were told that the club could have a budget of even less than what they started the current campaign with, which resulted in them losing eight of their opening nine games.
It was only when money was found to bolster the squad in November that Stirling’s side were able to turn around their season, leading to Sunday’s epic performance in beating Championship leaders London Irish 26-12 at Emerald Headingley.
Players hoped they would be able to build on such progress next term and had bought into talk about making a genuine push for promotion back into the Premiership. Carnegie had been trying to attract upwards of £5m investment to finance that challenge but, not only have they so far failed to do that, the club’s hierarchy now looks likely to instead reduce the wage bill again.
It is not the first time Carnegie have slashed their budget and the fear is all the hard work undertaken by Stirling and head coach Steve Boden will now be wasted.
Some players have already secured deals elsewhere amid the ongoing uncertainty and, with contract talks now delayed until April 1 (initially it was November), a squad that has won 12 of its last 15 games looks set to splinter.
Carnegie have essentially staved off the threat of relegation – they are 14 points above bottom-placed Hartpury with five games remaining. But they seem destined for another battle at the bottom next term, rather than a challenge at the top end, given the current state of off-field affairs.
Stirling remains proud of his players who defied the odds to become only the second team to beat Irish in the league this term.
“What that does is highlights the environment and the culture we’ve got that the boys can put performances in like that on the field,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “It was an outstanding performance. But there’s some questionable performances off the field in certain areas which, fair play to the players, they’re not tolerating.
“They love this club; they love what we’re doing and what we’re all about and they’re pretty tight as a group. There’s been some issues that have been hovering around in the background for a little while.
“It’s been dealt with away from the team for the last six or eight weeks but now the team are involved in it.
“We’re not dead. But we are on life support.”
On the meeting with the club’s hierarchy, Stirling said: “The players have known for a while that things weren’t moving the way they should be.
“They requested that the board come down and talk to them and I have to say in that meeting they conducted themselves with the same level of professionalism you saw out there (against Irish).
“They asked the hard questions, didn’t accept soft answers and basically said if the team performed to the same level as the board they’d be dropped; they wouldn’t be re-contracted. They asked them whether they should be here.”
Stirling says Carnegie have just eight players contracted for 2019-20 with many of their nine mid-season recruits – including Otago prop Tom Hill, former Brumbies loosehead Nic Mayhew and Beziers winger Elijah Niko – signing 18-month deals.
“There are a group of players who are contracted through to next year and we have to work through that as obviously they are pretty high-profile players,” he said. “What we have to do is see if we can get a clear picture of what they signed up for opportunity-wise (chasing promotion); is it going to be that?
“Then we have to have a conversation with those players, which involves myself as well, to be perfectly honest.
“It might not be what we all signed up for. It could be six, eight, 12 months down the track but there’s no certainty.
“Time’s against us now. If we can come up with some clarity that there is a certain level of funding then we can move on and start contracting again.
“I’d like to think at the moment we’re probably well ahead of where we were 12 months ago. But time’s running out rapidly. It’s just the uncertainty of it all. Players don’t want to leave.”
Stirling himself moved from New Zealand 12 months ago to turn around Carnegie’s fortunes, becoming their first director of rugby since Andy Key departed – due to cost-cutting – in 2011, their last year in the Premiership.
“I’ve got a wife and family at home who are saying ‘what’s going on..?’,” he said. “But I’m not worried about me. It’s the staff and players that concerns me.”